School leaders responded this week to allegations of bullying and harassment targeting immigrant students with promises to reevaluate and strengthen their current practices.

A letter by the community group We Stand Together was read aloud at the all Island school committee meeting in late February and published in Island papers alleging immigrant students and children of immigrants have been targeted with hate speech and aggression. The letter cited instances of spitting, name calling and threats of deportation.

The letter called for the administration to address the issue in a public manner, to implement a campus safe zone resolution, to develop an internal reporting system and to teach a tolerance curriculum across the district in all grades.

This week, Superintendent Dr. Matthew D’Andrea said the district administration was aware the national climate could affect how students behaved in the Island schools. After the election, he communicated with all the principals to encourage them to be vigilant for bullying or harassment of immigrant students.

Mr. D’Andrea said since then there have been four reported incidences of harassment or teasing targeting immigrant students in the district. However, he conceded there has been at least one incident that was not reported to the administration that he is now aware of because of the community meeting held by We Stand Together.

Superintendent Matt D'Andrea (right) has put together a task force to address the issue. — Heather Hamacek

“One of the reasons why [the administration did not know about the incident] was the communication barrier, the parents did not speak English,” he said. “That’s something we’re going to make sure comes out of this taskforce we are putting together, that we have a way the parents who do not speak English can have contact with the principal.”

In response to the letter, the district began to form a task force charged with revising current bullying policies and practices and making improvements, including using the campus safe zone resolution recommendations by the National Education Association. Though the make-up of the taskforce has not been finalized, Mr. D’Andrea said it would include an intersection of staff and community members including members of the Brazilian community and the Wampanoag tribe.

He expects the task force to present a draft resolution at the all Island school committee meeting in April. He stressed that the school never has, and never will, collect information about students’ or families’ documentation status. The schools do report to the state on students who immigrated to the country in the last two years for state testing and English language learners program purposes, he said.

At a high school committee meeting this week, Principal Sara Dingledy said while policies and procedures are necessary, real change will come from the community built within the school.

“If we’re truly going to respond in a way that is thoughtful and reflective, we’re thinking about how we can be an inclusive community for all students, every community,” she said. “How do we have students feel comfortable enough in the relationship they have with adults that they can report openly and honestly and without fear of things happening.”

She said they will focus on building a responsive community that is fair for members, those feeling targeted and the accused. But, she warned that building a community in the school that is driven by values isn’t a quick-fix and will take time. Ms. Dingledy said they would focus on restorative practices.

“Teaching students to feel comfortable, teaching teachers to feel comfortable leading difficult conversations, finding space and time in the day where we can have those [conversations],” she said.

She welcomed the taskforce and community groups to help locate resources and turn community building in the high school from a school project to an Island project.

In the elementary and middle schools, principals are looking to foster a community of inclusivity as the district administration focuses on larger policy decision.

Principal John Stevens of the Edgartown school said there has been one reported incident of teasing targeting an immigrant student. They used the existing policies and procedures to handle the incident, he said. They met with both students, explained the issue, explained what was wrong about the comment made, spoke with the parents to keep them informed of what was addressed and then kept a watchful eye to make sure the incident did not happen again, he explained.

“We dealt with it promptly and resolved the issue,” he said. “I don’t have data or information to report there is a rash or uptick since inauguration.”

The Edgartown school has about 350 students with 20 per cent of them immigrants, the majority Brazilian. To build inclusion in the school, the guidance counselors and health teachers created a curriculum about immigration that began this week.

“We already do a unit in all grade levels on bullying and harassment, this is an add-on,” Mr. Stevens said. “It’s more than a town issue, it’s more than an Island issue, it’s really a national issue. We’re trying to get in front of the issue and let our kids know we really need to be sensitive in what we say in matters of immigration and deportation.”

Principal John Custer at the Tisbury school said there have been no reported incidents at his school so far, but he understands that some incidences go unreported. “It’s frustrating and sad to learn things may have happened, but they have gone unaddressed,” he said. “If we know about something, we are certainly going to deal with it.” Tisbury school has the highest proportion of English language learners in its school, with over 80 students in the program. The majority of the ELL students are Brazilian. One staff member has been particularly helpful in keeping communication between the Brazilian community and the administration open. Laura Weisman, an education support professional, speaks fluent Portuguese and has been a conduit to the community. “Laura was hired to work with kids, which she does, but a large part of her day, she’s on the phone with families,” he said. “Parents know to go to her.”

In addition, this week the guidance counselors at the Tisbury school began working on a peer outreach program, modeling it on the high school’s program. “Oftentimes, students are the first ones to know about something,” Mr. Crocker said. “This will really strengthen the communication.”

Mr. D’Andrea said the administration will remain vigilant to make sure immigrant students feel safe in the schools. He said though there has been incidences of harassment, members of the student body have also shown a supportive side toward their classmates.

“When I talked to the principals about it, about how many incidences of bullying they’ve had in their buildings, they said they had far more students come to them and express that some of their classmates are fearful of the political environment, and what can they do to help support them,” he said. “I think that’s an important piece of information, we have kids in our school that are very thoughtful and very caring, that love their classmates and want to help them.”